Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story
Sometime in 2006, when my ex-boyfriend failed to show up for dinner, I assumed something was wrong or perhaps he’d forgotten. About a week later, calling to apologise, he told me he’d had an overdose, accidentally injecting a lethal cocktail of venom from three snakes. A lot has been written about Steve Ludwin, widely known as the man who injects snake venom, and lately his life has turned into a non-stop frenzy of international journalists and film crews revelling in the seeming sheer insanity of it.
Steve was once my great love; an animal lover, vegan and musician who wrote songs for Placebo and Ash, and played the Reading festival with Nirvana. In between tours and recordings he dabbled with snake venom. In his latest incarnation as a self-taught snake expert, moulding himself into the role of a lifetime, he appears as a kind of living specimen and star in a short film at the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, Venom: Killer and Cure.
“How cool is that? You normally have to be dead or a fossil to be in a museum,” says Steve, now 51, as we sit in his in Kennington, with its roof terrace offering glimmers of the London Eye and Parliament. He lives there with his Australian banker girlfriend Suzy, Russian blue cat Pushkin, a rare iguana and several snakes.
He’s been shooting, swallowing and scratching venom into his skin from some of the world’s deadliest snakes for 30 years. “Snakes are fucking everywhere. The symbol for medicine is two snakes. They’re ingrained in our brain and DNA,” he tells me, proudly insisting that he hasn’t been ill for decades and has developed “a superhuman immune system”. And it’s tempting to believe him. He does look undeniably fit.
The first time he did it was in October 1988 and he showed me his swollen wrist. I refused to indulge him and thought he was stoned. Today, Steve laughs at the memory. “Not really… well maybe,” he says. “But you know I’ve always loved snakes. I had no idea what it would do to me, but I knew it’d been done before and was curious to see if it was possible to become immune to snake venom.”
Now, ironically, Steve is on the cusp of something monumental, the development of a human-derived anti-venom that could potentially save many thousands of human and animal lives.
“When I was 17,” he says, “I knew I was going to inject snake venom in the future. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he had that feeling ‘this means something’. It took many years and accidents of messing around with it to finally make sense.” He looks down at his arms, showing the maze of track marks. “I look like a junkie. You can see all the incisions.”
After university, Steve and I lived in Islington with our cream-tabby cat Tad and a couple of friends. Our house was a zoo, with our potbellied pig Lou who loved the Velvet Underground, a ginger-and-white rat Moo-Moo whom I saved from the fangs of a copperhead, a pair of rescued iguanas, a vicious baby caiman crocodile and a terrifying assortment of snakes and scorpions. But for us, to live among wild animals was all we ever wanted. While pursing his music career, Steve had his dream day job, handling reptiles at the Vivarium in Walthamstow. The pet shop had a back room with venomous snakes. And it wasn’t long before he began bringing home rattlesnakes, copperheads and vipers with enough venom to kill our entire street.
I started an indie-music glossy called Lime Lizard and everyone and their mates showed up at our Victorian terrace, turning it into a den for drugs, debauched rockers and deadly snakes. Inevitably there were accidents: a fugitive snake that reappeared through the floorboards eight months later; diamondback rattlers left carelessly beneath a baseball cap on our bed that our flatmate nearly sat on. I got bitten by a tarantula that left me swollen, bruised and hallucinating for days, and almost crushed by a boa constrictor after Steve draped it around me for a photo.
Steve and I met in February 1986 at Eckerd College, a small liberal-arts school on a sun-struck sliver of Florida coast. I was there as a transfer student from UC Berkeley for my one and only semester. I lived in the same co-ed dorm as Steve. One evening, walking back from dinner, I heard New Order’sTemptation blaring from his room and started dancing outside his window. We took one look at each other and that was it. He looked like the all-American boy – tall, lithe, chiselled, with a floppy fringe and faint dusting of freckles – except he was anything but. Steve was born on an air force base in Los Angeles. His father, Ray, was a pilot for Pan Am, who met his beautiful Canadian mother, Jacqueline, when she was a stewardess. Growing up with two sisters in New Milford, a sleepy Connecticut town, he lived next door to Eartha Kitt, the original Catwoman in the 60s Batman TV show. I knew Steve was a stoner, but he was funny and engaging, had a cool New-Romantics haircut and great taste in music. I remember being struck by his handsome face, his quirkiness and intensity: he believed in aliens, the deep state and punk as a philosophy. That night we went to a smoky indie club, dancing to the Violent Femmes and Psychedelic Furs until 4am and skipping morning classes. That was the start of our love affair and deep and enduring friendship. Neither of us realised it then, but it was a really romantic time.
On our second date, sitting on his bed, I felt something brush against my ankle and thought: “Perfect, he has a cat.” Glancing down, an 8ft boa, thick as a motorbike tire, slithered from under the bed. I screamed and shot out of his room.
When Steve calmed me down, taking my hand like a small child and showing me the satiny-softness of the boa, I lost my fear of an animal that had previously terrified me, and eventually fell in love with lizards, too, even naming my magazine after them. At the end of term, Steve was keen to show me Costa Rica, where he’d lived as a student. Soon enough, we found ourselves alone among iguanas, parrots and howler-monkeys on the deserted beaches of Manuel Antonio, traipsing bare-legged through remote rainforests filled with ultra-territorial predators like jaguars and pumas, and the baddest killers on earth: toxic frogs, spiders and snakes like the deadly bushmaster, which I nearly tread on, and crossing into Nicaragua to see the sea turtles in Tortuguero during the Sandinista-Contra conflict that was terrifying to everyone but us. Before we even got on the dodgy fisherman’s boat from Limón, we could hear gunfire and mortars exploding in the distance. Steve, unfazed, said, “Fuck it, we have to die sometime,” and I went along for the adventure. Steve bought a T-shirt off the back of a Sandinista rebel for $50. Like many college kids steeped in left-wing politics in Regan’s America, we were rebelling against the pervasive conservatism and generation that ran our lives, searching for something authentic.
Our arrival in London happened to coincide with the late-80s underground scene exploding with bands like the Stone Roses, which for our generation felt like the 60s. Steve and I stayed together for seven mostly happy years and I remember it vividly – the gigs, stage-diving to Mudhoney and the Pixies and dancing at the Syndrome, an after-hours club on Oxford Street, hanging out with bands like Ride and Blur.
When Steve was “unsure what to do with the rest of his life” at 20, I encouraged him to pick up a guitar and write music. Months later, he auditioned for My Bloody Valentine. Inspired by the Beatles, REM and Black Flag, he started several semi-successful indie groups before landing a million-pound deal with Island Records with his band Carrie.
When an unscrupulous music-industry figure stole my magazine Lime Lizard, I was so crushed I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. Steve, in his laid-back way, said: “You have three choices: either you rot in bed like Brian Wilson; we can pay Bradley [one of his rough East End gangster mates] to break his legs; or you forget about it and create something else. Why don’t you write a book about your favourite band Nirvana, you know they’ll be huge?” I knocked out a proposal and asked my best friend Victoria Clarke, who was a little lost at the time, to write it with me. We instantly found an agent and a big publishing deal in 1991, before Nevermind was released.
As Steve and I were finding our way into adulthood – between the daily grind, drugs and groupies (he had crazed Japanese fans showing up on our doorstep at all hours, leaving love notes and giant teddy bears that terrified our cat) – our relationship ran its course. But we remained friends long after breaking up.
Steve was always insanely restless and curious and, in some ways, wilfully destructive. So I was hardly surprised when he had his venom overdose. He initially refused to go to hospital, fearing his snakes would be taken away. Instead, he sat down to watch David Attenborough’s series Life in Cold Blood about reptiles, over a Chinese takeaway, while his hand blew up into the size of baseball mitt. “I started thinking: ‘Wow, this is crazy. I could easily die here,’” he says, remembering feeling a pain with the intensity of “being stung by a thousand bees”.
“But I was happy and didn’t care,” he adds. “I’d had such a great life. When they say your life flashes by, I saw all the good bits and felt them, all the rock’n’roll moments, every great gig I went to or played. This is what intrigues me about snake venom, that scientists say there are compounds in certain venoms that help its victims accept and relax into death. I felt that first-hand.”
The next morning the swelling had worsened. “My arm was all red and doughy with a sack of liquid hanging from it and I could see the blood vessels appear. It was like something out of Evil Dead. It’s evolution telling you to stay away. Why do you think monkeys, dogs and everyone is instinctively scared of snakes?”
When he finally went to hospital, the NHS doctors had never treated a snakebite victim, let alone someone with the venom of three different snakes coursing through their bloodstream. “They didn’t know what to do,” Steve says, when he had to tell the stunned A&E nurses he deliberately injected himself. The doctors put him on the phone to a renowned snake expert, who Steve recalls telling: “‘I used a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, an eyelash viper and a green tree viper from Asia.’ And he just said: ‘Well, you’re screwed. There isn’t an anti-venom because you used three different species.’ Then he said: ‘You’re probably going to die or, at best, lose your arm.’”
The doctors suggested “cutting his arm wide open in a fasciotomy” to release the pressure. “I said: ‘Fuck that, I’d rather die.’ The snakes that I used had a hemotoxin, which destroys red blood cells, and that’s why people’s legs and limbs fall off in Central America.”
They gave him the anti-venom CroFab to target the rattlesnake venom that most likely caused all the problems. After three days in intensive care with no improvement Steve, pulling out his IV, discharged himself. Contrary to all their dire predictions, his hand, aside from the bruising, was back to normal a week later. “The doctors were shocked when I went back. They’d never seen a recovery like it. I thought: ‘Cool, this shit’s working.’”
Convinced his miraculous recovery was down to his self-immunisation, Steve became more fervent. He cheerfully admits mixing black mamba, cobra and puff-adder venom like the ingredients of an exotic cocktail and then, dizzied on pain and adrenaline, skateboarding through London traffic. “It made me feel invincible,” he says. “I was living like a madman. It got to the point where I was injecting almost daily, my legs, all over my body because you don’t want to do a lot of damage in one area as it could destroy nerves.”
He had literally turned himself into a science experiment, but there was a point to his madness. “For the past four years, I’ve been flying to Copenhagen to give blood and last year I had a bone-marrow operation. They drilled into my lower spine to take out bone marrow. It took me two months to recover.” Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have recently created an artificial library of antibodies, the Ludwin Library, generated by Steve’s immune system in response to the toxic injections, to develop the first human-derived anti-venom.
“What most people don’t realise is that anti-venom has been taken from horses’ blood for more than 100 years and sometimes snakebite victims die anyway, because their bodies reject it. When I walked into one of those blood farms and saw about 60 horses with holes in their necks being injected with venom, and with massive bags draining out blood, I was very emotional, knowing what they were going through.”
The World Health Organization considers venomous snakebites among the most neglected tropical diseases, killing more 125,000 people a year. “Anti-venom is very expensive. Pharmaceutical companies see it as a developing-world problem and have slowed the production, so snake fatalities are rising. These Danish scientists will solve that problem quickly by using technology and having found an idiot like me who spent decades injecting himself.”
His audacity and inventiveness is part of Steve’s appeal. “You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas. People don’t self-experiment enough. Scientists are now saying using toxins, if you get it right, can have beneficial side effects to your body that slow ageing. It’s like a Jane Fonda workout video for my immune system.”
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” he reflects, cranking up Adam Ant’s Puss ’n Boots and grabbing Pushkin, who’s high on catnip. He wanders out on to the terrace, lifting the cat over his head to show him London. “If those scientists win the Nobel Prize for medicine and I get recognition, that would be sweet.”
SkyPixel has announced the winners of its annual aerial photography competition and the results are breathtaking. The contest, which ran from October to December, received more than 44,000 submissions from people in 141 countries, across the categories of landscape, portrait and story. The grand prize was awarded to Florian Ledoux, a photographer from France, who captured a polar bear jumping across ice floes in Nunavut, Canada
World’s ultra-rich are buying subs for up to £30m to indulge in deep ocean exploring
A new toy has surfaced on the must-have list of leisure options for the world’s billionaire class: private submersibles they can use to explore the oceans – or even use as James Bond-style means of escape if their superyacht should come under attack.
The global super-rich last year bought about 30 submersibles – with price tags of up to £30m – according to manufacturer Triton. These private submarines are known as submersibles because they are not independently powered, instead relying on batteries that have to be recharged by a support vessel.
There is a growing number of super-rich, she said, who want more than to merely luxuriate in their good fortune. “The super-rich aren’t happy to sit on the back of their yachts with a G&T anymore. The modern ones and the young ones want to go to Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands,” she said. “They want to see what’s beneath the surface as well as what’s on top. They have seen Blue Planet, and they want to get down there and see it for themselves.”
Harrison told hundreds of delegates attending the Superyacht Investor conference in London this week that submersible manufacturers had their best year in 2017, as there has been “definitive change in direction among owners to use their superyachts for new experiences”.
“The industry sold 25-30 submersibles last year,” she said. “It may not sound like a lot but they are priced at a minimum of £1m and up to £30m. It is a lot of money.”
The Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the US hedge fund manger Ray Dalio are among billionaires who have already splashed out on underwater vessels. Indeed, one may not be enough: Dalio said he was so “wild about ocean exploration” that he bought two submersibles, which were used in the filming of the second series of Blue Planet.
“The underwater world is much larger than the above-water world, has more unidentified species than the above-water world, is essential to our wellbeing, is incredibly interesting and valuable, and is mostly unexplored,” said Dalio, the world’s 90th richest person with a $14.6bn (£10.3bn) fortune.
“For those reasons, and for the thrill of it, I am wild about ocean exploration. I explore the ocean personally while tagging along with great ocean scientists and explorers, and I financially support ocean exploration that goes on way beyond me – including sharing these thrills with the public through various media outlets and museum exhibits.”
The Nadir is a Triton 3300/3 model capable of diving to a depth of 1,000 metres with a pilot and two passengers on board and sells for about $3m depending on fixtures and fittings. “Yes, it’s a lot of money,” Harrison said. “But do you want to go diving in a cheap submersible?”
Harrison said the growth in submersibles had been driven by a rapid improvement in acrylic technology, which means they can be fitted with large clear bubble domes, giving a 360-degree views of the ocean. “When you’re underwater the acrylic sort of disappears and you feel like you are actually in the ocean. It’s a bit dreamlike when you’re down there,” she said. “The acrylic is the expensive bit, as the technology has only recently got so advanced that you can go that deep. It is very, very expensive stuff – you don’t want to scratch it.”
Harrison said most customers say they are interested in buying submersibles for exploration, but some have also inquired about using them as “panic rooms or escape vessels”.
Triton’s biggest competitor, Holland’s U-Boat Worx, has designed an ultra-lightweight submersible model specifically for superyachts. Its Super Yacht Sub Three is piloted from the rear so the passengers can get the best view of the ocean from the front of the bubble dome. The company said: “This submarine is aimed at the yacht market ... [it] delivers both performance and luxury.”
Triton, which is based in Florida, has partnered with British luxury car group Aston Martin to work on a new $4m three-man submersible codenamed Project Neptune. The subs, which are expected to hit the market later this year, will dive to 1,650ft and have a top speed of 3.5 miles an hour.
Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s chief creative officer, said the company had decided to expand into submersibles following interest expressed by its richest customers. “Those superyacht people, what they want to experience is changing,” he said. “It’s no longer about just having a launch or having your tender. It’s about having some other way of entertaining your guests.”
A major new study estimates 11bn pieces of plastic contaminate vital reefs and result in infections: ‘It’s like getting gangrene,’ scientists warn
Billions of pieces of plastic pollution are snagged on coral reefs, sending disease rates soaring, new research has revealed. The discovery compounds the damage being done to a vital habitat that already faces an existential threat from the warming caused by climate change.
Scientists examined 125,000 corals across the Asia-Pacific region, home to half the world’s reefs, and found 89% of those fouled by plastic were suffering disease. On plastic-free reefs, only 4% of the corals were diseased.
The work is highly significant because it is the first to examine the impact of plastic on disease in any marine organism and also the first to produce a large-scale estimate of how much plastic pollutes the sea floor. Coral reefs in the region are contaminated with 11bn pieces of plastic, the research indicates.
The scientists who conducted the new study did not set out to research plastic but were confronted by it across the regions they surveyed. The correlation between plastic pollution and high rates of disease was very striking and the researchers think sharp plastic fragments cut the coral organisms, while plastic fabrics smother them and block out light and oxygen.
“Corals are animals just like me and you – they become wounded and then infected,” said Joleah Lamb, at Cornell University in the US, who led the new research, published in the journal Science. “Plastics are ideal vessels for microorganisms, with pits and pores, so it’s like cutting yourself with a really dirty knife.”
During dives Lamb found objects from plastic chairs to baby nappies to a Nike-branded quick-dry towel: “I saw a big white Nike swoosh, right there where the disease was and thought, ‘oh gosh, this is not great’.”
She said that once a coral is infected, disease usually spreads across the colony: “It’s like getting gangrene on your toe and watching it eat your body. There’s not much you can do to stop it. If a piece of plastic happens to entangle on a coral it has a pretty bad chance of survival.”
Coral reefs are not only a wonder of the natural world, home to myriad spectacular creatures, but they are also vital for at least 275 million people who rely on them for food, coastal protection from storms and income from tourism. The scientists said it is “critical” to cut plastic pollution.
The international team of scientists examined corals spread across 159 reefs off the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia between 2011 and 2014. They found plastic snared on a third of the individual specimens, with the problem much worse on Indonesian reefs than on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where plastic waste is better managed.
The diseases particularly associated with plastic were skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease. Corals with complex branching structures, which provide crucial “nursery” niches for young fish, were eight times more likely to have entangled plastic.
The scientists were only able to record items of plastic more than 5cm in length, so did not assess the impact of microplastics. Lamb also warned: “There are a lot of other pollutants [such as toxic chemicals] in the water that are probably just as bad as plastic – you just can’t see them.”
Prof Terry Hughes, at James Cook University in Australia and not part of the study team, said: “I’d never thought of bits of plastic as a vector of disease spread from the slime that coats them, but the study shows convincingly that corals entangled in plastic are 20 times more likely to be infected.”
Earlier in January, a team led by Hughes published work warning that repeated bleaching events are now “the new normal” due to global warming and pose a fatal threat to reefs. “The new study shows that remote reefs have much less plastic and disease. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide from global warming, and even the most pristine reefs are vulnerable to bleaching,” he said.
Prof Alasdair Edwards, at Newcastle University, UK, and also not involved in the new study, said the combined impact of plastic-related disease and climate change could be very serious: “Warming oceans are still the major threat to corals, but this paper shows that in areas more affected by humans, as exemplified by plastic debris, the chance of corals recovering from mass-bleaching and mortality events may be severely compromised. Corals need all the help they can get.”
Lamb said the one hopeful aspect of the plastic pollution problem was that people can take direct action: “The take-home message for individuals is to be more considered about the amount of single-use plastics you are using and think about where your plastic goes. These little things do matter.”
The researchers also estimated that the plastic pollution tarnishing coral reefs in Asia-Pacific will soar by 40% by 2025 to 16bn pieces, unless action is taken. The true number is likely to be higher, as China and Singapore were not included in the analysis.
Homes evacuated and rail services disrupted after snow gives way to warmer weather
Flood warnings have been issued and treacherous conditions forecast across the UK as the recent cold snap gives way to milder temperatures.
Heavy rain and meltwater have swollen rivers in parts of England and Wales, where the the Environment Agency has issued eight flood warnings and 52 flood alerts.
On Sunday, homes were evacuated in north Devon as heavy rain caused landslides, road damage and flooding, and Environmental Agency staff were deployed with pumps to assist those affected.
The Met office has issued yellow weather warnings for icy conditions in north-east England and Yorkshire for Monday morning.
“Icy patches are likely to form on Sunday night and last into Monday morning. With surfaces left wet from Sunday afternoon’s mix of rain, sleet and snow, icy patches are likely to form overnight and into Monday morning on any untreated roads, pavements and cycle paths. Some injuries from slips and falls on icy surfaces are possible,” it warned.
On Sunday people were forced to flee homes in Kentisbury, near Barnstaple, and properties were flooded in Combe Martin on nearby Exmoor, the Devon and Cornwall police force said.
The Environment Agency issued flood warnings for people to take immediate action on the rivers Taw and Exe in mid-Devon, and three others in Somerset and Wiltshire.
Further flood warnings were in place on the River Wye in Herefordshire and Riseley Brook in Bedfordshire.
In Somerset, Cheddar Gorge was closed to traffic after rain washed rocks and debris into it.
Train services between London, Devon and Bristol, and services in south Wales were affected by flood waters on Sunday night. A Great Western Railway spokesman said: “Due to heavy rain flooding on the railway between Swindon and Chippenham all lines are blocked.”
The milder conditions follow a weekend of heavy snow and freezing conditions, with temperatures as low as -13.5C in Dalwhinnie in the Scottish Highlands, the lowest temperature since February 2016.
On Sunday afternoon, five people were injured in a two-car crash amid hazardous conditions in the Highlands. Police said the injuries were not thought to be life-threatening. The A82 near Glencoe mountain resort was closed while officers dealt with the incident.
The snow gates at Glencoe were closed as the weather deteriorated, with winds causing drifting snow and white-out conditions.
In Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, a 64-year-old man was rescued by a mountain rescue team on Sunday afternoon after he tried to walk to safety after spending a week cut off by snow.
On Saturday morning, two climbers were rescued after being stuck in a precarious position on a mountain ridge. The pair survived the night without shelter at 3,000ft at Bidean Nam Bian in Glencoe.
After blizzards prevented the Glencoe mountain rescue team reaching them on Friday, a coastguard helicopter located them just after 8.30am on Saturday morning. The coastguard warned people not to put themselves in unnecessary danger.
Research into jobs finds men’s dominance in IT and biotech is reversing trend towards equality
The gulf between men and women at work – in both pay and status – is likely to widen unless action is taken to tackle inequality in high-growth sectors such as technology, say researchers at this week’s World Economic Forum summit in Davos.
A new WEF report on the future of jobs finds the dominance of men in industries such as information and biotechnology, coupled with the enduring failure of women to rise to the top even in the health and education sectors, is helping to reverse gender equality after years of improvements.
The report estimates that 57% of the jobs set to be displaced by technology between now and 2026 belong to women. According to Saadia Zahidi, the WEF’s head of education, gender and work, this underlines that global efforts to reduce gender inequality in business are stalling.
“We’re really looking at a worsening of inequality, particularly in IT but across all sectors,” Zahidi said. “We are losing valuable opportunity to reduce gender inequality.”
The warning comes at a historic moment in the 47-year history of Davos: for the first time, the annual gathering of the world’s political and financial leaders in the Swiss mountain resort will have all-female co-chairs, in an attempt to increase awareness of longstanding gender and other inequalities in business and wider society.
The seven women chosen to lead the meeting come from all sectors of society: from the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, to Chetna Sinha, an Indian social entrepreneur focused on micro-finance for female entrepreneurs.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation and another of the seven co-chairs, said the fact that no men have been appointed to any of the meeting’s strategic roles this year “sends a strong signal that all is not right with the world”.
Burrow, an Australian union leader who described herself in her acceptance speech in 2010 as a “warrior for women”, said recent events had made it even more important to speak up for gender equality in the workplace and society at large. “We saw a wave of misogyny unleashed last year and it’s been allowed to escalate by government and corporations,” she told the Guardian.
The US president Donald Trump, who is expected to attend Davos this week, was “partly responsible for unleashing” this wave, she added.
Despite introducing a quota in 2011 designed to increase the number of female delegates attending, men continue to dominate Davos. Just 21% of some 3,000 delegates are women.
The WEF’s annual gender gap report at the end of last year calculated that the gulf between male and female opportunity had widened for first time since it started gathering data in 2006. “The global economic model has failed working people and failed women more than most,” Burrow said. “In the world of work, using any set of indicators, progress for women has stagnated. This has been driven by corporate greed and profit, more than anything.”
Chetna Sinha, the founder and chair of the Mann Deshi Foundation, believes that the all-female panel will bring gender inequality into “the heart of the corporate/business world, and that’s a really useful thing”.
She is particularly keen to ensure that “voices of poor women” are heard, adding that the panel emphasises the diversity of experience at Davos, with non-governmental and grassroots organisations joining the political and business leaders. “At Davos, I see myself representing the fractured world,” she said.
Zahidi, whose team’s report on the future of work is published on Monday, identified two potential causes for the stalled progression of women in business. First, the fact there are fewer women working in high-growth areas such as IT, biotech and infrastructure, leading to a “smaller pipeline” even as larger numbers of women are going into higher education to study the relevant subjects.
Second, Zahidi said that even in high-growth sectors which typically employ lots of women – such as education, health and the care sector – the “leadership positions are still dominated by men”.
Despite widespread warnings about increasing automation – robots (real and virtual) doing the work of human beings – hitting so-called blue collar jobs in manufacturing, less has been said about “pink collar” jobs in customer service and administration typically held by women. Zahidi said corporations needed to consider organisational change at all levels of the workplace. “It needs a holistic approach from companies when thinking about gender equality – not just board-level positions. Diversity leads to creativity, which is even more necessary in a world undergoing an industrial revolution,” she said.
Each year, studies such as one from accountancy firm Grant Thornton in 2015, Women in business: the value of diversity, point out that companies perform better when they have at least one woman on the board. Yet change has been glacial and, after years of some improvement, is beginning to stall.
Mervyn Davies, the former senior banker and minister whose 2011 report set a 25% target for women on FTSE-100 boards, is not attending Davos this year. He applauds efforts to increase participation at the meeting, and believes any future progress will be led by “upwardly focused activism” rather than the old model, exemplified by Davos, of “downward discussion”.
“I think the mood of society is really changing very speedily. We are at a tipping point where the up-and-coming generation is going to say ‘we’re not going to tolerate this,’ ” Lord Davies said, adding, “We’ve got to get women back in all workplaces.”
Two years after his final report on the issue, Davies talked about the entrenched opinions he faced even as a successful chairman of a leading bank, Standard Chartered. “I faced a huge amount of hostility from men. I was a member of their club and because I was an insider they accused me of being an agent provocateur from the inside.”
His final report called for one third of all FTSE-350 boards to be held by women.
Despite the signs of stagnation, both Davies and Zahidi, who last year authored a book about the impact of more women joining the workforce in the Muslim world, are optimistic, partly because of the next generation. “The fact there has been a very public conversation around sexual harassment, around the #MeToo and the Time’sUp movements – all of this reflects the fact that a much larger number of people care about the influence of power,” said Zahidi. “There is now positive momentum and we need to make sure material change is achieved.”
Arriving in Davos, Burrow said: “We have the power in our hands to really change. The question is, do we have the courage?”
World-changing women? The seven Davos co-chairs
Christine Lagarde Managing director of the IMF The French lawyer and former cabinet minister has been the head of the International Monetary Fund since 2011, when she replaced the scandal-hit Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Re-elected for a second five-year term in 2016, she is regularly ranked as one of the most powerful women in the world by Forbesmagazine.
Ginni Rometty Chief-executive of IBM Having started as a systems engineer in 1981, Rometty worked in sales, marketing and strategy before becoming the first woman to lead the head IBM in 2011. One of the best paid executives in the US – she earned $33m (nearly £24m) last year – she has faced mounting criticism for taking pay bonuses despite huge employee layoffs.
Sharan Burrow General-secretary of International Trade Union Confederation The Australian was the first woman to become general secretary of the Brussels-based ITUC, the world’s largest trade union federation with 180 million workers in 162 countries and territories. This self-styled “warrior for women” has worked on several campaigns for workers’ rights in the growing digital economy.
Chetna Sinha Founder/chair of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank The Mumbai-born social activist set up a bank that lends tiny sums to women in rural India after meeting a woman unable to save because other institutions thought her aim – to buy a tarpaulin to shelter her family during the monsoon – was too small. Singha’s bank, the first run for and by rural women to get a co-operative banking licence, has reached hundreds of thousands of women.
Erna Solberg Prime minister of Norway Elected Norway’s second female prime minister in 2013 after serving as leader of the Conservative party since May 2004. As minister for local government, a tough stance on the country’s asylum policy earned her the nickname “Jern-Erna” (Iron Erna). Subsequently involved in the decision to reject a request for asylum by the Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. Solberg was re-elected last year.
Fabiola Gianotti Director-general of Cern In 2016, the Italian particle physicist became the first woman to run Cern – the pan-European nuclear research organisation best known for its large hadron collider. Always ranks high on lists of global thinkers and most influential scientists – of either gender.
Isabelle Kocher Chief-executive of Engie The only female CEO in the CAC 40, the benchmark French stock market, Kocher has led a radical transformation of the energy group formerly known as GDF Suez since her appointment in 2016. Having decided Engie should “take its responsibility” over climate change, she has sold 20% of its assets, notably in coal power. She also set internal targets for at least a quarter of Engie executives, and 35% of “high-potential staff” to be women.
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The British government may have breached a major “environmental democracy” law by failing to consult the public when drawing up Brexit legislation.
A UN-backed committee has confirmed it is considering a complaint from Friends of the Earth that the government’s EU withdrawal bill breached the Aarhus convention, which requires public consultation on any new environmental law.
Most of the UK’s environmental laws derive from or interact with EU law, and Friends of the Earth (FoE) has raised concerns that the bill gives ministers “unique and wide-ranging powers” to amend or delete EU-derived environmental law without public consultation, if ministers consider it appropriate.
According to Defra, “over 1,100 core pieces of directly applicable EU legislation and national implementing legislation” fall within the department’s remit.
William Rundle, lawyer for Friends of the Earth, said: “The government said Brexit was about taking back control, yet it has ignored the views of the UK people in taking it forwards. There has been no consultation on what the withdrawal bill could mean for the environment and environmental legal protections, or what is the best way forwards.
“The Aarhus convention requires effective consultation when new laws are being prepared that can significantly affect the environment, such as the EU withdrawal bill. This would have allowed environmental issues to be debated and understood, but also built democratic accountability and public confidence.
“The current approach by government in conducting Brexit fails to do this; they didn’t even try. Nobody thought Brexit would be easy, but the government cannot ignore its legal obligations, or the views of the people.”
According to the Aarhus convention’s three pillars, information relating to environmental legislation must be provided by public authorities “in a timely and transparent manner”, and the public must be allowed to participate in the development of new laws at an early stage of their preparation. The third pillar is public access to justice, should a party violate or fail to adhere to environmental law or the convention’s principles.
The government may have breached the convention in two ways, FoE says: by failing to set out a consistent legal framework to allow public participation in the preparation of new environmental legislation (article 3), and by not giving the public an opportunity to comment on the bill before it was presented to parliament to be made into law (article 8). FoE says the government failed to consult with the public, and by calling a snap election, any possible engagement with the bill’s white paper was prevented.
In a letter to Friends of the Earth, the Aarhus convention compliance committee says: “the committee has, on a preliminary basis, determined the communicant’s allegation concerning the preparation of the draft ‘great repeal bill’ and the alleged lack of a clear, transparent and consistent framework to implement article 8 … to be admissible”.
Michael Mason, associate professor at the London School of Economics, says the government remains legally bound by the Aarhus convention after withdrawal from the EU, and by abolishing laws relating to Aarhus provisions the UK would be in breach of the treaty.
He says: “The UK would not be able to cherry-pick provisions in the convention: the UK is either fully in or would have to pull out from the treaty. To stay in, the UK government will have to retain all EU-derived law implementing Aarhus obligations.
“A withdrawal from the Aarhus convention would be disastrous for UK environmental policy.”
A House of Lords report calls the EU withdrawal bill a “bill of the first order in terms of law-making powers being granted to ministers”. It says “this bill is expected to generate another 800 to 1,000 statutory instruments in the near future.”
The bill does not require that current environmental standards are maintained after Brexit, nor does it contain a general requirement that the public should be consulted on potentially significant changes to environmental legislation. It does not require ministers to replace the existing European commission complaints procedure on breaches of EU-derived environmental law, which is currently available to UK citizens free of charge. The UK government could still include a requirement for public consultation, however.
A government spokesperson said: “The purpose of the withdrawal bill is to provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU – it is an essential bill in the national interest. While we can’t comment on proceedings, we believe we have complied with all of the relevant obligations in developing this crucial legislation and remain committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We will be submitting our full response in due course.”
The government now has until 5 June to provide its written response to the complaint. The committee will then decide whether the UK government is in breach of its obligations.